By Lowana Veal
REYKJAVIK (IDN) – With over 2,000 participants, including 400 speakers, the fourth Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik was a hive of activity and networking on everything to do with the Arctic. The event has become the largest Arctic event globally.
The concept of the gathering October 7-9 was devised by Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who until a few months ago had been President of Iceland and had put considerable time into Arctic matters and climate change. Grimsson still plays a central role in the Assembly.
The event consisted of a number of plenary sessions coupled with a large number of seminars, otherwise known as breakout sessions. This year, Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon and outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had also been invited to give presentations.
Although Scotland is not considered an Arctic country, Sturgeon pointed out that the north of Scotland is actually closer to the Arctic than to London. Scotland passed its Climate Change Act in 2009, she said. “Scotland has reduced energy use by almost a sixth since 1990… we see big opportunities for Scotland in areas such as renewable heat and developing the circular economy,” she told Assembly participants.
“When our Climate Change Act was passed 7 years ago, 28% of Scotland’s electricity demand was met by renewable power. Last year, the figure was 57%,” she continued.
Sturgeon talked about the establishment of a Climate Justice Fund in Scotland, because “the individuals affected by climate change are often the very young, the very old, the ill, and the very poor. Women are suffering disproportionately, since they are often the main providers of food, fuel and water”.
Ban Ki-moon was awarded the Arctic Circle Prize for his leadership in international climate diplomacy, as he has emphasized climate change during his 10 years at the UN despite political opposition at the time he took up his position.
“As we are all keenly aware, the Arctic is melting before our eyes. There is a steep decline in sea ice. On one single day last month (September), the Arctic ice cap melted at three times its normal rate, losing ice the size of England…. The Arctic is Ground Zero for climate change,” he told the Assembly.
“Indigenous peoples are also affected by national strategies for climate change adaption and mitigation, especially renewable energy initiatives such as windmill farms and hydropower projects, which often take place on indigenous peoples’ territories… their contributions are essential to help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and combat Climate Change,” he added.
In one breakout session, Paolo Ruti from the WMO said that September is predicted to be ice-free in the Arctic sometime between 2040 and 2070. The WMO has designated the period between mid-2017 and mid-2019 as Year of Polar Prediction in order to improve predictive capabilities.
Summing up that session, Bjorn Dahlback from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat pointed out that synoptic data is missing, whereby the same parameters are measured at the same time in separate places.
One of the plenary sessions focused on the issues of sea ice and permafrost. Phil Duffy from Woods Hole Research Center told the audience that not only is the Greenland Ice Sheet melting, but also as the ice melts it absorbs more sunlight and the surface gets warmer.
Jennifer Francis from Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences said that half the sea ice in the Arctic has melted. This makes the Arctic darker, which means that the amount of sunlight being reflected back into Space is reduced and consequently the Earth is absorbing an increasing amount of solar energy, leading to warming. “And when the Arctic warms up, the Gulf Stream becomes weaker,” she said.
Later in the session, Duffy said that the need for CO2 removal is vital for policy. Carbon restoration in biological systems is important, which is done by restoring wetlands, forests and certain kinds of agricultural practices. His colleague Sue Natali, a permafrost researcher, pointed out that “numbers reported by scientists are conservative. Scientists don’t report unknowns”. William Moomaw from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy ended the session with the words “Do whatever you can in your own country.”
Two themes, renewable energy and Inuit communities, kept coming up again and again at the Arctic Circle.
In a plenary session called ‘Meeting the challenges of sustainable development in the Arctic’, Danish MP for Greenland Aaja Chemnitz told the audience: “Sustainability in the Arctic should focus much more on the indigenous angle.”
In the same session, Carter Roberts from WWF said, “The framework for sustainability in the Arctic is the sustainability goals….. For the first time, the sustainable development goals on poverty, hunger, climate, food production, life under the sea and life on land are important additions to the millennium development goals.”
One plenary session focused on an Arctic renewable energy network, exploring the need to fill in the gaps currently provided by fossil fuels with renewable energy. One aspect of this is to link countries by means of electrical grids, but although this is technically feasible there might be political barriers and a lack of popular support.
A number of breakout sessions also touched on renewable energy. One looked at the potential for geothermal in the Arctic, focusing on replacing dirty diesel generators with the direct use of geothermal in Canada’s northern territories and Alaska, while other sessions looked at the challenges and logistics of providing renewable energy to remote communities in Greenland and Canada.
Kare Hendriksen from Denmark’s Technical University said that in Greenland, 60% of energy comes from five hydropower plants. Although many settlements have limited potential for hydropower, each of the 73 towns has to be self-sufficient in energy, water and other infrastructure as there are no roads between towns.
Other speakers noted that the same is true for many Inuit communities in northern Canada. In Canada, 2,000 communities are not linked to others via grids. Housing and energy costs are also higher in remote areas. “But energy costs can be reduced drastically by good design,” says architect Larry Cash.
Gwen Holdmann from the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, told participants at a session on cold climate technologies that Alaska has done a lot to integrate renewable technologies in order to displace diesel fuel.
Solar, wind and hydro plants are used, while one geothermal plant uses 72°C hot water because “that’s all that’s available”. However, it is important to train local operators: “Equipment sometimes fails because it isn’t designed to operate in remote grids of about 5,000 people,” she explained.
At the Reykjavik assembly, Quebec and Iceland signed an agreement to strengthen scientific cooperation in clean, sustainable energy. Like Iceland, Quebec derives most of its electricity from renewables – in its case hydropower – and another Arctic Circle gathering will take place there December 13-15, focusing on sustainable development in northern regions.
At a breakout session looking at climate change, species dispersal and fisheries, Hordur Saevaldsson from the University of Akureyri said that three new species – Atlantic mackerel, Scandinavian herring and blue whiting – had become established in Icelandic waters since 1996, while others such as capelin have decreased. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 October 2016]
Photo: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left) with Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, former President of Iceland, on his left.
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